Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Book Review: Feeding the Nation Left a Sour Taste

In my last blog post, I described an academic study of hunger, food, and cultural racism in twentieth-century South Africa that is so prize-winningly good that it intimidated me as a writer. Let's just say that the next book I picked up engendered just the opposite feelings. For a book with a title like Feeding the Nation: Nutrition and Health in Britain before World War One (2010), I can't believe it wasn't on my radar before this spring. But Yuriko Akiyama's dissertation/first book seemed to promising that I went ahead and purchased it. Her argument is simple: cookery teachers, nurses, and other "educationists" (a British word I had to look up that means "educators") taught nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Britons both nutrition and hygiene through lessons about food preparation and consumption. 

However, Akiyama conflates teaching with learning. This is pitched as a study of reception, but she offers precious little data about what the trainees thought of their lessons. I don't really fault her for that, because designing a reception study is hard (I know, I've tried); the answer is to frame your work as a discussion of other people's discussions, of what they wanted to convey. Unfortunately, she seems to take many of her primary sources at face value, blithely recounting their letters, speeches, and booklets. This may be one reason why the timeline of events in each chapter is so confusing: because each author rediscovered the importance of food for health in order to justify the importance of their particular program, it seems like the thread of the argument that cookery was recognized as important for the health of individuals and the nation is constantly being dropped and picked up again. She sometimes explains a particular idea as "now/suddenly/finally" being perceived as important once some reform has happened, which neglects the interest that had to exist beforehand to generate the political and social will for that reform. It also doesn't help that she argues for the importance of Florence Nightingale in the development of cookery and hygiene and then mentions at one point that real change required 30 years. In the long duree that's nothing, but in real time three decades an entire generation.

The other difficulty that arises from Akiyama taking her sources at face value is that she adopts their disapproving, reformist tone, especially toward the lower classes. Although she includes such important details as the fact that many poor Britons lived in hovels or tenements without private cooking facilities, she nevertheless makes comments about how uninformed and unhygienic they were. She confuses lack of knowledge with lack of will or ability, when there were manifest structural and institutional hindrances. This is important, because on the one hand she argues that the army taught every man to cook his own rations to ensure that nutrients would not be wasted by an inexperienced (non-British/foreign) cook, and then later she notes that the navy trained professional cooks so that all sailors could benefit from good, hygienic food. Somehow both are supposed to convey the same message about the importance of diet on health, when I suspect the army was mostly concerned about cost cutting. I will concede her one point though, which is that just because hygienic structures and routines have been created doesn't mean that individuals will absorb the lesson (I think of soldiers defecating outside of their tents because it's more convenient than going to the communal latrine).

The best part of the book is that she tried to cover a variety of sites: schools for cookery teachers, elementary schools, hospitals and nursing schools, training for soldiers and sailors. In this way she covers girls and boys, women and men. I wish she had spent more time on the recipes that were taught, rather than talking about the educational institutions, but then I would have written a different book. And maybe I will.

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